Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

Interviews

August 1st; around 9pm – I was on a call with a close friend, asking her to give me a quick summary of algorithmic complexity, what O(n), Omega(n) and Theta(n) meant. Asked her to tell me what in-order, pre-order and post-order traversals were in the context of trees. Asked her what the different types of trees were. Thanked her after she gave me the gist in a little over half an hour. That was all the preparation I had for the next day – for the first set of interviews I gave in my life, with Microsoft. I got the job and spent a few nice years there. The years flew by, and I finally felt it was time to return home to Bangalore; nothing at Microsoft could keep me back in Hyderabad!

Time to prepare for job interviews again! Late August 2010 (dunno what’s with me and August) – Amazon flew me down to Bangalore after a couple of phone screens, for the second set of interviews in my life. This time, it was a couple of hours with my brother, sparring over algorithmic complexities and graph traversals and what-not. That was all the preparation I had, and Amazon was kind enough to extend an offer, which I gladly accepted.

A few months into Amazon, I saw a mail from my manager, asking me to go through the interview training. That, and a couple of shadow interviews later (where I silently observed what the interviewer did), I was ready to conduct my first interview. And then the “fun” started. (Sarcasm alert for the impaired: “fun” in quotes is definitely NOT fun)

It took me a week to find ONE proper question. A few days more to twist it and hone it. Rinse and repeat to have an arsenal of questions. And answers. All the possible ones; or account for them at least – you could NEVER say where a candidate would head with his answer, and you had to be able to evaluate those answers on the fly, and find loopholes where applicable. This was tougher. A whole lot tougher. I had to gauge the skill level of a candidate in a given amount of time, and I had to give the candidate a fair chance. I had to ensure the candidate wasn’t pissed, or went away with a bad impression about Amazon or the work here. I had to pick the good while rejecting the bad. I had to account for off days, where a good candidate might be making silly mistakes. I had to make sure there was no time wasted in helping the candidate understand the question, coz I had just one hour; so the questions had to be easily described. I had to make sure the question involved minimal if any bookish knowledge. I had to ensure the candidate was able to APPLY what he had learnt in college or his previous job(s). I had to ensure that even if the questions were out there on the internet, I would STILL be able to get some useful information about the candidate; useful being the operative word here. Which meant I had to create new ones regularly too. And in the case of phone screens, I had to make sure that the candidate having access to the internet wouldn’t nullify my questions. I had to think on my feet – running through my questions wasn’t my aim, getting information about the candidate was; if morphing a question or coming up with a new question during the interview was the best way to get information about the candidate, I had to be prepared to do that (and I’ve done that a couple of times too). And I had the time constraint of one hour. And oh, did I mention I shouldn’t get biased at any point? That goes without saying, I guess.

More importantly though, I had the responsibility of being fair to the candidate. Rejecting a good candidate and potentially screwing their career is the last thing you’d want on your conscience; it also means more interviews to conduct. Hiring a bad candidate can have absolutely disastrous consequences for the company and the team. And most important of all, you want the candidate to feel good about the interview – feel that they got a fair chance, feel that the interview was a nice experience on the whole, and feel that the company is a nice place to work in with nice people in it.

On the whole, as an interviewer, I’ve put in way more effort to take ONE interview, than I did to prepare for all the rounds of interviews I have ever been through in Microsoft or Amazon. And this, despite my being a hardware engineer – hey, in both cases I had an awesome friend (Sindhu) and an awesome bro to help me out, after all! 🙂 Not to forget the others who lent me moral support, or books that I never used! (Thanks for the book Suman, but I decided that a half hour summary over phone was better than reading the book the night before the Microsoft interview! :D)

Sure, conducting interviews isn’t all bad – it is nice coming up with new questions, or trying to at least, and it is nice talking to other people and seeing how different people approach the same problem, but that’s about all that is good in conducting interviews.

I guess it all boils down to responsibility. I had no responsibility whatsoever when I interviewed at Microsoft or at Amazon – if I screwed up an answer, I’d just lose the job at max, and hey, I never had it in the first place! Here, I might end up screwing someone’s career. I might end up screwing the team, because I know the cost of one bad hire. True, I’m not the only interviewer in the second case, but that doesn’t make it any better. I remember some people in college remarking how much fun it must be to conduct interviews – they said you could ask whatever you felt like and watch the candidates squirm. I didn’t have anything to say then.

I do now.